The Tale of Atreus and Thyestes

Vine

Twin brothers Atreus and Thyestes were two of the many children born to King Pelops of Pisa and his wife Hippodamia. As with all of the descendants of Tantalus, their lives were comprised of many intricate layers of chaos and sorrow. Below are a few examples.

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The Death of Chrysippus

The story of Chrysippus has many twists and turns and therefore can be a bit of a challenge to the reader. I will try my best to make this a pleasant and enjoyable interpretation of the story.

DanaisAfter Pelops had acquired the throne of Pisa, he fell in love with Danais, the daughter of King Danaus of Argos. The two did their best to keep their affair a secret, but Mother Nature had her way and soon Danais found herself to be with child.

When the baby arrived, Pelops delighted in the prospect of welcoming a new son into his already large family. The infant was called Chrysippus, and though the lad was born out of wedlock, Pelops cherished him more than any of his lawful children.

This caused a great deal of strife to develop within the hearts of the other siblings, and also within the heart of Pelop's wife Hippodamia. It was during this time that Amphion and Zethus, the twin sons of King Lycus of Thebes, rose up against their father and forcibly removed him from his throne.

In order to protect their positions as co-regents over the land, the brothers promptly had the crown prince Laius, unjustly banished from the city. When Pelops learned of the recent developments in Thebes, he felt sorry for Laius and kindly welcomed the young man to join his family in Pisa.

In order to earn his keep, Laius was entrusted with the task of tutoring Chrysippus in the art of chariot driving. He worked closely with the youth, making sure that the boy was well versed in all the strategic movements most commonly found on the battlefield.

But Laius foolishly began to develop deeper feelings for his handsome young pupil, and devised a plan that would effectively remove Chrysippus from the protective watch of his father.

Laius packed up his student and headed for the town of Nemea under the pretense of entering Chrysippus in the chariot race division of the Nemean Games. But before arriving at their proposed destination, Laius instead chose to kidnap the youth and carry him back to his homeland in Thebes.

Because Amphion and Zethus had lost their lives while Laius was secretly residing in Pisa, he was freely able to enter the city and declare himself as king.

No one will really know for sure whether Chrysippus was a willing participant in this scheme, but it seems more probable than not Laius forced himself upon the boy and seditiously kept him as his lover.

Back in Pisa, Hippodamia grew evermore fearful that once Chrysippus was safely returned into the care of his father, Pelops would name the boy as his heir to the throne.

Adamant that no misbegotten child would ever live to supersede her own sons, she gathered up Atreus and Thyestes and with them set out for the land of Thebes. Once inside of the city she urged the two brothers to find Chrysippus and drown the young man by tossing him into a deep well.

Sleeping ChrysippusBut when Atreus and Thyestes refused to take part in the murder, Hippodamia's only choice was to take matters into her own hands.

She crept into the towering fortress and lightly made her way through the shadowy stillness of the palace halls.

The door leading to Laius' bedchamber was slightly ajar, allowing Hippodamia to slip inside and ever so quietly remove the king's sword from its ornately trimmed sheath.

She raised the dagger high above her head and with a surge of energy angrily thrust its blade into the belly of her stepson. One can reasonably assume that Laius would have indeed been convicted of this crime had not the face of the true killer been clearly illuminated in the surrounding beams of candlelight.

Chrysippus slowly lifted his head from its resting place, and with his last breath clearly whispered the name of Hippodamia. Though Laius did not play a part in the death of Chrysippus, Atreus and Thyestes placed him inside of his own dungeon as punishment for carrying the boy away from his family.

Unaware of the tragic fate that had fallen upon Chrysippus, Pelops rallied up his armies and forcefully stormed the walls of Thebes. But once inside of the city gates it became quite apparent to the troubled father that there was something terribly wrong at the palace.

Sadly for Pelops, he learned that his beloved son had suffered a mortal wound at the hands of his stepmother. In order to escape the wrath of her husband, Hippodamia took flight into Argolis and there took her own life.

Though Pelops chose to spare Laius, he placed a heavy curse upon the king and on all of his future generations. You can find more information about Laius and the sorrows he brought upon the land of Thebes by going to my page dedicated to the story of Oedipus.

I would like to add that there is another lesser known tale which states that Chrysippus was not murdered, but simply resorted to suicide over his shameful affair with Laius.

It is also important to note that the unlucky circumstances surrounding the life of Chrysippus clearly illustrate the curse of Myrtilus weaving its way throughout the house of Pelops.

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Atreus and Crown of Mycenae

Atreus and ThyestesIn order to distance themselves from the death of Chrysippus, Atreus and Thyestes left Pisa and settled into the land of Midea.

It came to be that after the death of King Eurytheus of Mycenae, an oracle advised the people of the city to choose their next ruler from the house of Pelops.

Knowing that there were two sons of Pelops residing in the neighboring town of Midea, the Mycenaeans sent word to the brothers and petitioned them to appear before their council of elders.

However when the twins arrived they were so similar in both appearance and character, that the patriarchs could not decide who would be best suited to wear the crown.

In order to fully understand the next part of the story we must take a brief step back to a time when Atreus and Thyestes were busy tending sheep in the ancient district of Acarnania.

One afternoon as Atreus was overseeing the pasture, he swore a pledge to the goddess Artemis, promising to always offer her the finest specimens found living amongst his flocks.

In order to test his dedication, the goddess caused a magnificent ram wearing a thick fleece of gold to suddenly appear among the herds of ordinary sheep.

Atreus was so captivated by the beauty of the beast that he decided to place only its flesh upon the sacred fire and keep the remarkable hide for himself.

He slyly concealed the golden fur inside of a large chest, but instead of keeping the matter quiet, Atreus chose to foolishly boast about his ill-begotten treasure to anyone who would listen.

Now it came to be that Atreus had taken Aerope, the daughter of the Cretan king Catreus to be his wife. But in spite of her recent marriage, Aerope found herself to be inordinately infatuated with her brother-in-law Thyestes.

Seeing this wistful affection of his sister-in-law as a perfect weapon to use against his brother, Thyestes approached Aerope and agreed to be her lover only if she would first deliver to him the fleece of gold.

Unable to control her passion, Aerope retrieved the coveted prize from its hiding place and without a qualm handed it over to Thyestes. Feeling quite happy with himself, Thyestes then hid the article away and never spoke of it again.

Aerope and ThyestesWith this information in mind, let us return back to Mycenae where we previously left the brothers standing before the court of elders.

Atreus, being the first born of the two, proclaimed that according to the right of primogeniture, the crown undoubtably belonged to him.

Unaware of his wife's act of treachery, he then abruptly added "It is reasonable that only he who has in his possession the golden fleece should be permitted to sit upon the throne of Mycenae."

Thyestes agreed, stating "Yes, he who owns the fleece should indeed be made king!." With that Atreus hurried back to his home to retrieve the divine hide from his bedchamber, but when he threw back the heavy lid of the chest, he found it to be empty.

Thyestes then demanded the council members follow him to his living quarters, where he smugly presented to them the fleece of gold. Though Atreus protested loudly to the council, all of his complaints were ignored and Thyestes was declared the king of Mycenae.

Because Zeus openly preferred Atreus over his brother, he sent his herald Hermes down to earth to act as a mediator between the two. Following the god's bidding, Atreus proposed that an accomplishment greater than producing a fleece of gold should be used in determining the identity of the new ruler.

"Why not give the crown to the man that can reverse the sun's direction and change the course of the Pleiades?" he said with a smile. Thinking his brother had gone crazy (and unaware of Zeus' involvement in the matter), Thyestes readily took up the challenge.

In a flash, Zeus waved his invisible hand and caused both of the extraordinary events to take place in the clear skies above Mycenae. As the crowd of spectators watched in awe, Thyestes was swiftly stripped of his crown and the kingdom was awarded to Atreus.

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The Banquet of Atreus

Banquet of AtreusAtreus' first charge of business as king was to have Thyestes permanently banished from the city. But his feelings of power and glory would prove to be short lived, for it was not long before talk of Aerope's affair with Thyestes began to circulate throughout the land. Hungry for revenge, Atreus followed in the footsteps of his grandfather Tantalus, and invited Thyestes to attend a grand banquet that was being held in his honor.

He then approached the sons of his brother as they were worshiping in the temple of Zeus and mercilessly butchered them as they cowered before the alter. A while later he placed the body parts inside of a large cauldron and slowly boiled them into a thick stew.

When Thyestes arrived at the palace, Atreus greeted his brother with a warm welcome and false words of love and reconciliation. He next led Thyestes into the dining hall and sat him down before what appeared to be a delicious meal.

The two laughed and reminisced about times long past, but just as Thyestes was taking the last bite of his dinner, Atreus pulled a garbage pail from underneath the table and revealed the heads and hands of his murdered nephews.

Thyestes could not believe his eyes! He sat frozen in his chair until Atreus, in a final act of hatefulness, had him forcefully removed and cast out of the city.

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The Tale of Pelopina and Aegisthus

Pelopina in the Groves of SicyonOverwhelmed with grief, Thyestes traveled to Delphi and sought help from the oracle of Apollo. He was informed that vengeance against his brother would not be possible unless he first fathered a child with his own daughter Pelopina.

Thyestes followed the words of the Pythia and traced Pelopina in the land if Sicyon, where she was serving as a priestess in the temple of Athena.

Wanting to keep his identity a secret, Thyestes covered his face with a mask and quietly hid himself among the gray shadows of the sacred grove.

As Pelopina offered her nocturnal sacrifice, she accidently stained her tunic with a few drops of the victim's blood. In order to cleanse the spatter from the cloth, she carefully removed her garment and gently placed it inside of the temple fountain.

But before she could wash out the stain, Thyestes sprang from behind the bushes and had his way with her. Unable to recognize her father's face under the mask, Pelopina resourcefully stole her attacker's sword and carefully tucked it beneath the statue of the goddess.

Fearful that his missing weapon would expose his true identity, Thyestes quickly fled from Sicyon and retreated into the Lydian homeland of his father Pelops.

During this time it came to be that the city of Mycenae found itself in the grips of a severe famine. Believing that this dire situation could only be punishment for the shameful deeds he committed against his nephews, Atreus also chose to petition the Delphic Oracle for advice.

The priestess slowly wavered in the spirit of the god and then in a loud voice spoke the words "Return Thyestes to Mycenae!" Atreus hastened his way to Sicyon to search for his brother but when he arrived he found no trace of Thyestes anywhere in the city.

Instead, he had the pleasure of meeting up with Pelopina, who was now very much with child and living under the care of King Thesprotus. Presuming that the beautiful maiden was the daughter of the king, Atreus asked for her hand in marriage.

Eager to add a powerful ruler like Atreus to his list of allies, Thesprotus chose to keep Pelopina's true name to himself and granted permission for the wedding to take place.

A short time after Atreus and his new bride returned to Mycenae, Pelopina gave birth to a son. To rid herself of the displeasing memories surrounding the babe's conception, Pelopina wrapped him in a cloth and left him on top of a mountain to perish.

Delphic OracleBut before any harm could fall upon the child, a band of passing goat-herders rescued the infant and gave him the name of Aegisthus, which very suitably carries the meaning of "goat strength".

Believing that Pelopina's erratic behavior was a symptom of what we today would view as postpartum behavior, Atreus retrieved the child from the care of the shepherds and elected to raise him as his own.

During the course of his previous marriage to Aerope, who by this time had been executed over her affair with Thyestes, Atreus had fathered two sons, Agamemnon and Menelaus.

Because he was not able to locate Thyestes on his own, Atreus chose to send the trusted pair to once again seek the wisdom of the oracle.

As fate would have it, no sooner had they approached the shrine of the priestess, that their eyes caught sight of Thyestes as he stood waiting amongst a crowd of spectators.

Seeing their good fortune as a sign from the gods, Agamemnon and Menelaus rushed into the throng of onlookers, seized their uncle and escorted him back to Mycenae.

With Thyestes safely locked away in the palace dungeon, Atreus summoned Aegisthus, who was then just seven years of age and ordered him to slay the sleeping prisoner.

He armed the boy with a powerful sword and carefully led him through the dark and narrow hallways until they reached the cell where Thyestes was being kept. Then Atreus quietly removed the heavy lock from the chamber door and allowed Aegisthus to slip inside.

Aegisthus bravely raised the sword above his head but before he could strike, Thyestes suddenly awoke from his sleep and wrestled the blade from the boy's small hands.

What happened next was remarkable to say the least, for Thyestes realized that the sword he clutched was none other than the one he lost seven years prior in the groves of Sicyon.

Thyestes grabbed his baby-faced assailant and demanded to know how the sword came to be in his possession. Aegisthus cried "It was a gift from my mother Pelopina!" affirming to Thyestes that this boy was in truth his son.

"I will spare your life if you are diligent in fulling these three tasks of which I ask of you," Thyestes told the fear stricken lad. "First bring your mother to me so that I may see her here inside of my cell".

Aegisthus hurried off and returned a short while later with Pelopina following in tow. Instantly recognizing the prisoner as her father, Pelopina embraced Thyestes and wept with joy.

Thyestes then demanded his daughter disclose just how she came to be in possession of the sword, to which she replied "I took it from the stranger who ravished me one night in the groves of Sicyon."

Death of Pelopina"This is my sword" Thyestes replied. Pelopina gasped with shock, and with the feeling of shame heavy upon her reached forward and thrust the sword deeply into her chest.

Thyestes turned to Aegisthus and for his second task ordered the boy to return the blood soaked weapon to Atreus as mock proof that Thyestes was now dead.

Atreus gleefully received the sword from Aegisthus, and believing that he was finally rid of his brother scurried off to the sea to offer prayers of thanks to Zeus by the shore line.

When Aegisthus returned back to the prison cell, Thyestes confessed that he the boy's true father. He then informed Aegisthus that for his third and final task the young man must take the life of his stepfather Atreus.

Aegisthus hurried off to where Atreus was offering sacrifices to the gods, and without a hint of warning raised his sword and pierced the old man's heart as he stood beside the water's edge.

Though Thyestes was able to reclaim his title as Mycenae's king, his reign unfortunately came to an abrupt end when King Tandarius of Sparta marched against the city and forced him to abdicate the throne to his nephew Agamemnon. It is said that Thyestes escaped into the land of Cythera and never entered into the city of Mycenae again.

Mercury






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